The film begins in court where we see Zane, a boy from a poor family, who is filing a lawsuit against his parents. Asked by the judge why he does this, Zayn replies, “Because I was born.”
The story then flashes back a few months. The boy lives with his parents and takes care of his younger brothers and sisters who earn money instead of going to school.
Zane plans to run away with his beloved sister and start over. But her parents marry off her sister and Zane runs away from home, and then meets Rachel, an illegal immigrant from Ethiopia. She sympathizes with him and agrees to take him in on the condition that he will look after her one-year-old son while she works.
But Rachel has enough problems. The documents are expiring, and she has no money to get new ones. The speculator offers her a deal: she will receive new documents for free if she agrees to give her son up for adoption. Rachel refuses, although she understands that this will give her son a ticket to a better life. The authorities seize her, and Zane, left alone with the child, begins to earn money to flee the country.
Through betrayal, disappointment, and the death of loved ones, Zayn manages to get an ID he never had.
The meaning of the film Capernaum
Lebanese director Nadine Labaki stated that the film is a reflection of today’s Beirut. This is also reflected in the film’s title. The word “capernaum” in French means chaos and disorder. The name also refers to a city on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus was supposed to preach and heal the sick. There is certainly a parallel between Jesus and the hero of the film. The boy must endure the cruelty and humiliation caused by poverty.
In recent years, Lebanon has taken in more than a million refugees fleeing the war in Syria. The sight of hundreds of children begging on the streets has become the norm for the Lebanese. Labaki always knew she wanted to tell the story from a child’s point of view. So she interviewed hundreds of children living on the streets.
“At the end of the conversation, I used to ask them: are you happy to be alive? And in most cases the answer was no. They just consider themselves insects and parasites,” says the director.
Indeed, the film is often more like a documentary than a feature film. And this is because much of what is shown is not fiction. For example, the actor who plays Zein is actually a Syrian refugee named Zein Al Raffea.
“Capernaum” shows the hunger, suffering and bullying that drove Zane into the courtroom. By suing his parents, he is also suing the system, the whole society, which does not allow him to enjoy his basic human rights.
It hurts Zane to see how poverty continues to multiply, how people are ready to do anything to snatch their piece of bread. Whether it is the deliberate use of cheap labor by immigrants who agree to the most insignificant pennies, or the sale of children for organs. He is offended by the whole world because he made him become an evil old man with a heavy look from under his brows, enclosed in the body of a child. Ultimately, he accepts the cruel laws of a heartless world: he renounces the people closest to him, his parents. He breaks this connection, he no longer identifies with those who were his family. Now he is alone against the family, against poverty, society and the whole world. But who is he?
Who and what is Zein or Rachel? Her child and his parents? Each of them must answer a question posed to Zayn repeatedly in the film: “Where are your documents? I need proof that you are human.” Statelessness and illegality pop up in the film for a reason. These are the bureaucratic mechanisms, set in motion by money, by which humanity is established. “Capernaum” is the director’s angry cry against a system that revels in dirty money while the rest are forced to grab overboard with the last of their strength just to live.
It was important for the director to show the viewer the real life of those who are forced to flee their country, so that he can see the reverse side of the coin. Despite the general tragedy and inconsistency of the film, there is a place for humor and kindness in Capernaum. The film claims that they are always with us, even in the most difficult life circumstances.
The meaning of the film’s ending Capernaum
In the final minutes of the film, we are shown Zane getting his first ID and going to the photographer for a document. He asks him to smile. At first it is difficult for him, but in the end he succeeds. However, this can hardly be called a happy ending. Zane has not found his place in this world. But this is his small victory; now he exists for this world. He is angry at him and ready to scream about it, but now he exists, and even more people can hear him. Yes, the ending is open and we do not know what will happen next, but this is a moment filled with hope, both for the viewer and for the boy himself.
The director herself spoke about this uncertainty. However, in a later interview, she shared that the actor Zein Al Raffea obtained Norwegian citizenship and went to school for the first time. Therefore, now she is sure that everything turned out well for his on-screen character.